God has more humour than Helen Clark

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God has more humour than Helen ClarkBlessed are the humorists, for they will have the last laugh. We have just witnessed the visit of Helen Clark, New Zealand’s anti-nuclear Prime Minister to a US President who appears to be falling precipitately from every sort of pedestal, real or imaginary. David Lange once commented of Helen that she was so dry as to be combustible. No doubt she had a serious agenda for this visit, but such overdone sobriety simply tips one into levity. What on earth, we ask, was going on? What’s the possible worth of the silver stars this President awarded her for good conduct? Why cross the oceans to go to lunch with him? Now with Howard we know what’s going on…

What is it with humour? Is it a side-show in the theological market-place, or could it be right there near the centre? We instinctively distrust the humourless, and cherish those who disarm us, whether with their belly laughs or hard-won wry wisdom. But why? Is it that humour trips up the self-important, the moralizers and autocrats and logic-choppers who sometimes crowd the ecclesiastical paddocks. I guess we all enjoy a touch of schadenfreude? That’s taken him/her down a peg or two… !

We think of Erasmus during the Renaissance, tickling the sensitivities of a rather dowdy church. Getting away with murder, so to speak, in his Praise of Folly, giving earnest reformers wriggle room, even as he donned the convenient mask of the Fool. He stuck the stiletto in, but because of his humour lived on to tell the tale. Savonarola in Florence or Servetus in Geneva met stickier fates. Humour as the ecclesiastical can-opener.

Cynicism, the cultivated snigger, helps to keep us sane as we cope with dogmatic cul-de-sacs and institutional inanities. There’s limited leverage, though, in the long run, about such indiscriminately deflating humour. We’ve all met sad folk who meet every issue with the same ‘levity’. It may be a cautionary warning that Luke’s Beatitudes are rather ambivalent about laughter. Those who weep will laugh, they promise, but it seems the hee-hawers will get their come-uppance as well.

So where do we draw the line? In the past we used to ring the blasphemy alarm with altogether too much alacrity, claiming high-minded concern about God’s honour, when all too often it was our own self-esteem that was being pricked. Yet does the recent controversy around the cartoons depicting Mohammed suggest that the pendulum may have swung too far the other way? Where and when (and by whom) should humour be ruled out of court? How do we avoid an epidemic of slick irreverence?

God has more humour than Helen ClarkGood humour generally harbours serious intent. The more ‘wicked’ it is, the more irreverent, the deeper the vein of ultimate concern can be. Erasmus himself is a good example. Lively humour is deadly earnest. It erupts in the yawning gap between our dawn dreams of joy and justice and the noonday reality of cruelty and corruption. It flowers in the dark interstices of life. No totalitarian regime tolerates it for long. The long tradition of Jewish humour reminds us of its subversive, but also redeeming qualities. I laugh, therefore I survive. It can be the flip side of lamentation, an intimation of extremities of pain, while at the same time a pointer to their partial transcendence.

The Christian God is a speaking God, a Deus redens. A facet of the divine 'accommodation' to us (another Erasmian concept, later taken up by Calvin in a big way) is that God is earthed in our language, not least our humour. The Incarnation as one long joke. God in a cradle, for goodness sake! Francis of Assisi saw that in a flash. The parables are perhaps the best example of God leading us up the garden path, but of course long before them the nutty stories of the patriarchs, the bizarre actions of the prophets, the metaphorical stuntmanship of the Psalmist had us reeling. God’s earthy humour teasing us out of our stiff-neckedness, our prosaic, clumping, chain-mailed religiosity.

Such divine clowning inhibits us from taking our personal convictions with too much ‘animal seriousness’, as the Germans say, prods us to climb out onto a precarious branch and give ourselves a detached once-over. Any half-decent liturgy, or thoughtful pastoral counseling, inches us, kicking and screaming, towards cognitive dissonance, alerts us to new constellations of possibilities, nerves us for the tedious business of having to shift around every blessed piece of furniture in our minds. We learn to chuckle at ourselves, whether old Adam or new Eve. What a hoot! We the people of God!!

A good belly laugh (there’s much in the Scriptures about entrails) can show up the penultimate nature of so many of our convictions, energies, priorities, but without roughing us up too overtly and cruelly. Humour nudges the frail dinghy of our souls towards the friendly abyss, as the mystics have always known. As a way of reaching out to our contemporary world, which totters between the obsessively serious and the lust for the grotesque, humour, whether overt, wry, or dark, is one of our greatest God-given assets. Though of course, we dare not instrumentalise it. Like Desmond Tutu, we need to be giggling ourselves silly first.



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In keeping with this article, it would be great to have a regular column in Eureka Street that expressly addressed the views expressed here.

Where do we find such a writer ?

Noel Will | 04 April 2007  

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